TRANSCRIPT: MEET THE PRESS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 31 JULY 2011
TOPICS: HMAS Success; US debt crisis; Joint Strike Fighter; Afghanistan; Malaysia agreement; Labor Party.
HUGH RIMINTON: Now, welcome to the program, Stephen Smith. Good morning, Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Hugh.
HUGH RIMINTON: Let's go - you were coming from Western Australia, hence the slight delay on there, for people watching at home. Let’s go straight to this latest allegation on ‘HMAS Success’ – a female sailor claiming that she was sexually assaulted by someone else in the Navy. Is this, surely a disappointment to you?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I have to be careful, there is an investigation underway. The most important thing here is that the young sailor concerned reported the incident, the alleged incident, to the Navy. There was immediately an investigation by ADFIS, the Defence Investigation Service, and immediately a report to police, and police are now investigating it.
So, the most important part here is that upon receipt of the complaint, appropriate action was taken and we now await the police investigation into the matters. In the meantime, the young sailor concerned has been given all the necessary support. More generally in general terms, the new Chief of Navy, and I, and the Chief of the Defence Force, have made it clear that there is a zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour throughout the service. In the case of this particular matter, we obviously need to wait for the investigation, the police investigation, to take its course.
HUGH RIMINTON: Why was there no statement from Defence until they were approached by the media? Why has there still been no statement from Defence through the media operations units? Is this the transparency that you would hope for?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think the most important thing here is that when a report or a complaint is made of inappropriate conduct or behaviour, particularly if that potentially involves a serious criminal offence, the most important thing is to make sure that it is quickly investigated and handed over to the relevant authorities.
Now, in the end it is a matter, once a police investigation has commenced, it is a matter for the investigating authority, to make that investigation public or not. Sometimes it is appropriate for that investigation to be made public, and on other occasions, the investigative authority determines not to make it public, because it might prejudice the investigation.
HUGH RIMINTON: So you say there is no cover-up, no attempt to cover-up, because of the obvious potential for embarrassment to Defence?
STEPHEN SMITH: All of the advice, all of the information I have is that upon receipt of the complaint, Defence and Navy conducted themselves appropriately. It was reported to the Defence Investigative Service and then reported to police. The matter is now a matter for police. It is a matter for the police to determine what publicity, if any, is given to this event.
But obviously there's now a police process and potentially a criminal justice process. So we are best off now just leaving the matter in the hands of the relevant authorities. But on the information I have, and the advice that I have had, Navy and Defence conducted itself appropriately in this circumstance.
HUGH RIMINTON: Ok, you’re fresh back from Washington. The debt talks continue even as we go to air. Should we be worried?
STEPHEN SMITH: We are obviously watching it very carefully and very closely. It's not the first time that we have seen a President not having the support of the Congress.
My instinct has been all along both in Washington and now, that at five minutes to midnight, or at the death knock, the matter will be resolved.
Whatever the outcome, it is clear that there will be further budget and Defence cuts so far as the United States Defense and military is concerned, and obviously we want to look at that detail and monitor and follow that detail closely. That may well have adverse implications for us.
HUGH RIMINTON: Well, certainly we heard from the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dempsey saying that if the cuts are at the upper end of what has been suggested – up to $800 billion – he gave evidence that it would make it extraordinarily difficult for the US military and involve "very high risk".
Should we be worried that cuts are going to go so deeply necessarily into the US military spending that it reduces their capacity to provide the kind of global security we have become used to?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have, of course, our alliance relationship with the United States, the US alliance continues to be the bedrock of our strategic and security and Defence arrangements and obviously, as I say, we are monitoring very closely what adverse implications, if any-
HUGH RIMINTON: Is it going to be less than it was because of the necessity for deep cuts?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what the – what officials in the United States and what Secretary of Defense Panetta, was saying to me, was that just as Defence in Australia, we have we have our own challenges.
So far as Defence budget and Defence efficiency is concerned, we have our own Strategic Reform Program. The challenge in the United States is to be more efficient, to cut wastage, to make sure that what is being done is being done in the most effective way. But also it is quite clear that the United States does not want to retreat from its long-standing – what it regards as a long-standing obligation to provide peace and security in its region and throughout the world.
They have to grapple with the detail of those cuts. It is very important that we understand carefully the implications of that, whether it is for a program like the Joint Strike Fighter or whether it is for operations throughout the world.
HUGH RIMINTON: The Taliban has continued its campaign of high-profile assassinations and assassination attempts in Afghanistan. Washington says those are the evidence of a weakened insurgency.
RYAN CROCKER AUDIO: The Taliban is now damaged to the point where they can no longer conduct large-scale operations.
BRENDAN NICHOLSON: Mr Smith, that sounds like wishful thinking. In April, you made the comment that you expected that after the Coalition forces had over the previous year, taken considerable territory off the Taliban, you expected and Coalition commanders expected, a range of high-profile attacks from the Taliban.
John Muhammad Khan has been assassinated; President Karzai’s brother has been assassinated. We’ve had more attempts of attacks in Tarin Kot over the past week.
Do you feel that the Taliban is on the ropes or are they coming back more strongly than expected?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think I said as early as March of this year to the Parliament that we expected the Taliban to fight back on the ground but also expected these high-profile propaganda-style attacks.
Indeed, when I was last in Afghanistan, I met Governor Shirzad in Kabul and said that he had to be careful about his own security arrangements. We were expecting these high-profile attacks. They are regrettable and in this case, I absolutely condemn the death of civilians, particularly young children – it's been a terrible attack.
But the Afghan National Security Forces fought back strongly. They carried the bulk of the attack. And the fact that Governor Shirzad is safe and secure is obviously a very good thing. He is a very good governor, we work closely with him. But none of these attacks come as a surprise.
After my talks in Washington, my assessment remains the same, which is that we have made up considerable ground, as a result of very effective work by our special forces over the last 18 months to two years. And we do believe the Taliban momentum has stopped. And the very early signs of political talks, political outreach is I think, the best evidence that the Taliban are under pressure. But they will continue to fight back in this way.
BRENDAN NICHOLSON: Can you tell us anything more about the role of Australian troops in fending off this attack?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's been a bit of misreporting. The response was conducted by Afghan National Security Forces, including police and two of their police officers were killed. Australian forces came in after the event to check to make sure that there was no further danger from unexploded bombs or IEDs and then conducted an over-watch over the nights securing the scene.
There has been misreporting suggesting that Australian troops were at the frontline in the attack – that's not the case. It was carried out by Afghan national army and Afghan national and local police. We gave some assistance after the event. It was good to see that on the ground in Uruzgan, the training occurring enabled the Afghan Security Forces to effect a response and protect governor Shirzad.
DAN OAKES: Minister, you referred to these attacks as propaganda attacks. But they are not just propaganda; they are a systematic campaign of assassination of President Karzai's allies in the south of the country. They are not just being done for propaganda purposes. What does this say about President Karzai's hold over the country and his power base appears to be eroding before our eyes?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I described them as propaganda because they are aimed at having maximum impact on political will in the United States, in Europe, in the NATO and International Security Assistance Force countries and in Australia – it is aimed to sap political will.
The single most difficult thing about our mission in Afghanistan is that we have been there for 10 years. We now have a good political and military strategy with the resources on the ground to meet it. The problem is that we are about five or six years too late. And they're also aimed at causing maximum difficulty for the political system in Afghanistan.
So they are aimed at President Karzai, they are also aimed at people who we know are effective. Governor Shirzad in Uruzgan province is well regarded; he’s starting to deliver services to the local community and people in Uruzgan. So, the objective is to get outcomes which will sap political will in the NATO and ISAF countries, but also to undermine the effectiveness of the Afghan Government, both the central Karzai government and provincial governments.
BRENDAN NICHOLSON: Mr Smith, has anything emerged from the investigation into the killing of Lance Corporal Andrew Jones by a rogue Afghan soldier that indicates - gives you any more information about motivation or whether the killer had any more assistance from the Taliban?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there is no further update in the capture and killing of the Afghan soldier who killed Lance Corporal Jones. The best evidence or witness, so to speak, is no longer with us, and not in a position to assist.
My instinct has been that it was the actions of a rogue soldier. But we may well never know the precise reason or cause of the Afghan soldier murdering and killing Lance Corporal Jones. The best witness, so to speak, is no longer with us.
HUGH RIMINTON: Now, we have had an arrival, it’s the first that’s come in, the ink is barely dry on the Malaysia solution and yet a boat has turned up. Does that mean that the policy is a dud, Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think that is a characterisation that I think is fraught with difficulty on day one. We've seen since the announcement of this arrangement by Immigration Minister Bowen, we’ve a slowing in the number of boats. This is the first boat arrival subject to the new arrangements. The test is down the track. We are confident this will have adverse implications so far as the people smugglers’ business case is concerned. We have seen a smaller number of arrivals but the test will be the implementation of this arrangement and we will see that in the future.
HUGH RIMINTON: We have a question come through on Facebook, it comes from Christian, who asks, “When will you go for the leadership, you are Labor's only hope of winning the next election?”
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Prime Minister's doing a very good job in difficult circumstances. I previously made the point that we have more than two years to go between now and the next election. I would not be counting Labor out at this stage.
HUGH RIMINTON: You rule yourself out of taking leadership any time between now and the next election?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's no vacancy and I'm strongly supporting the Prime Minister. Whenever a Government, particularly a Labor Government tries to effect structural change to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, to reduce the amount of carbon in our economy; that is a big structural change.
There are always short-term political difficulties. But I strongly agree with the notion of the Prime Minister, as I articulated, that this is a long-haul race, and the community will make their judgment of the Prime Minister and the Government and Tony Abbott and the Opposition in September/October of 2013, so more than two years away.
DAN OAKES: Minister, in April, or - I think it was April, the man in charge of the Joint Strike Fighter program here, in the Australian Defence Force told ‘The Age’ and ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ that he had not been asked to provide an alternative plan in the event of more scheduled delays and cost blow-outs – is that still the case? Have you been presented with an official or alternative plan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, two things. Firstly, I have made it clear, both in Australia and in the United States, that the last thing I will allow to occur will be a gap in capability. So the single biggest risk so far as the Joint Strike Fighter program is concerned is scheduled delay. In my conversations with Secretary of Defense Panetta, but also with the Joint Strike Fighter program in Washington, there will be an exhaustive assessment, risk assessment, of the schedule before the end of this year, and in the course of next year.
I will make a judgment about whether we need to make alternative arrangements so far as making sure that we don't have a gap in capability. The obvious response there, or option there, is more super hornets, but we have made no decisions in that respect. But I won't allow a gap in our air force capability to occur. That is the single biggest risk to us. And we’re monitoring that obviously, very closely.
HUGH RIMINTON: Stephen Smith, thank you for joining us on ‘Meet the Press’ today.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.